As early as the 1920s, musicians and engineers had experimented with ways to make the guitar louder, particularly as the audience for public dance music expanded and music companies needed higher volumes to record live performances. The Big Band sound of the 1920s, with its emphasis on the drums and brass, overwhelmed the acoustic guitar, pointing to the need for a way to amplify its sound. In the 1930s, country and jazz musicians worked with acoustical engineers to develop electric instruments and were the technology’s first defenders against charges that electrified sound was inauthentic.
In 1931, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker created the first commercial electric guitar, a Hawaiian-style instrument called the Frying Pan that was played flat on the lap. Earlier inventors had created electromagnetic pickups that passed the vibrations of the strings through the bridge or soundboard to the magnet and coil, but the signal was too weak to magnify the sound. Beauchamp and Rickenbacker’s guitar registered vibrations right from the strings to create a more direct pickup. The electromagnetic converted the vibrations into an electronic signal, which was amplified and played through speakers.
Toward the end of the decade, inventors tried to apply this technology to traditional Spanish-style hollow-body guitars, but these devices tended to produce distortions and feedback. Guitarist Les Paul responded to this problem by creating a solid body guitar, known as “the Log,” which used a plank of pine to control vibrations. Other inventors built guitars that combined the Spanish-style with a solid body, such as the 1939 Slingerland.
The breakthrough that turned the electric guitar from a niche instrument to a cultural icon was the Fender Telecaster. In 1943, Clarence “Leo” Fender, a radio repairman, and Clayton Orr “Doc” Kaufman, a musician, developed an inexpensive, mass producible electrical guitar in Anaheim, California. Their design was similar to those produced by musicians and engineers since the 1930s, but had better pickup and tone control.
Fender owned an electronics shop where he repaired and designed amplifiers and electromagnetic pickups. His customers were musicians who tinkered with electrical wiring to make their guitars louder and project sound further. Fender and his partner, Kaufman, took a different approach, developing a solid-body guitar that was not just loud, but had excellent tone. Their prototype became the basis for the Telecaster.
The Telecaster was ideal for mass production because of a simple and modular design that did not need to be assembled by hand. The body was machine-cut from a slab, not hand-carved. The neck was screwed on, rather than glued on, which made it easily removable for servicing. The neck was also built from a solid piece of wood without a separate fingerboard. The electronic control panel was removable, another innovation making the guitar simpler to repair than its predecessors.
Fender’s guitar was practical, affordable, and, because of its rich tonal range, versatile for many styles of music. But it made its deepest mark in the development of rock n’ roll music. Rock musicians and their legions of fans adopted and customized Fender guitars and other electrics to generate loud and textured sounds.